Vacation Annapurna, part 4

Tukuche to Kagbeni and back to Pokhara, days 9–14

We had another lazy morning on Monday (day 9). Liz and Andrew had left early that morning to climb a nearby peak while the rest of us had elected to eat lots of Danish pastries and wander the sleepy Western town of Tukuche. Laurel, Tony, Moser, and I wandered over to the Kali Gandaki River to look for saligrams, fossils encased in black stone that date back, so I’m told, to the Jurassic period when the Himalayas were underwater.

I didn’t find any and though we passed countless shops selling them I didn’t buy any either. We went by the distillery for a tour but were told that we’d have to come back in the afternoon. Tukuche was an interesting enough place. The one thing that struck me about the town were the cows. Since leaving Pokhara, Tukuche was the first town with wandering livestock. And they were vocal cows, too, impulsively bleating loudly. It was uncanny how loud the cows in Tukuche were.

Andrew posed for this shot atop a small Buddhist monastery in Marpha.

Andrew posed for this shot atop a small Buddhist monastery in Marpha.

Before long Drew and Liz showed up from their expedition and we were off to Marpha (2680 m), just a few hours walk away. After arriving in Kalopani, our major upward ascent was behind us.

The scenery was softly changing into arid plains less majestic, rocky peaks along the Kali Gandaki riverbed. If you looked northwards along the riverbed you could see for miles and miles.

Marpha was the largest town we’d come upon since leaving Pokhara. Hotels advertised pool tables and darts. The streets were lined with Tibetan women selling cheap silver work and fabrics made on hand looms. We stayed at a bustling lodge called the Neeru Inn.

The Didi was especially robust and busy. The women in the hills are so much, well, affable than the women I the Terai.

I mention this because Andrew was quitting smoking. How does this relate? Well, perhaps nicotine withdrawal caused a psychotic reaction and that’s why he asked the Tibetan Didi to marry him.

She said, No, which wasn’t so much of surprise, but she followed it up with, I don’t like American men.

A woman would never say this to man in the Terai, and we had all been hastily conditioned to the Terai women’s condition. We needed to be shaken up.

Andre receives a surprised birthday cake and custom embroidered Tata shirt.

Andre receives a surprised birthday cake and custom embroidered Tata shirt.

That night we slept well knowing that the next day we wouldn’t be going anywhere. Moser and Tony had stayed behind in Tukuche hoping to catch André and Naomi who were lagging behind. Wednesday, October 16, 2002, was Andre’s birthday and we’d been dragging around birthday gifts for him in our backpacks for the past week.

Moser and Tony caught up to us on Tuesday morning (day 10) and we were thinking that André’s gifts were going to become belated. It wasn’t until just before sundown when André and Naomi fell into the hotel. He hastily made some preparations with the Didi for a birthday cake for the next morning.

Just after Moser and Tony arrived, there was some commotion in the lodge. Some arguing that was just a bit too loud. We asked the Didi who told us that a trekker had accidentally killed a pack donkey on the trail the day before.

North of Marpha, pack donkeys travel the dusty trail on their way to Jomsom.

North of Marpha, pack donkeys travel the dusty trail on their way to Jomsom.

The donkey’s owner, a tall, gentle Tibetan man from Upper Mustang had come to make a settlement.

But the trekker, an useless Canadian by the name of Paul, was refusing to come to any agreement and threatening to walk out of Marpha unless the train drivers acknowledged the donkey’s death was not Paul’s fault, ergo he had no responsibility to pay.

The basic story is this: on a small crossing over a creek, Paul started across a bridge spanning around ten feet and four feet high at most when a donkey from a train came onto the bridge as well. Paul held his ground as the donkey approached. When finally the donkey made to pass Paul on the bridge, the donkey fell, breaking its back.

Paul said he braced himself on the donkey as it passed and then the donkey lost its footing and fell. The train drivers said that Paul pushed the donkey as it came upon him, causing it to fall. Who knows? I wasn’t there.

I do know that this trekker was an asshole and caused a lot of unnecessary turmoil in the community. It wasn’t until Moser intervened as an interpreter that things calmed down, but still Paul was upfront about his unwillingness to pay any money for the dead donkey. Hell, I bought a boat that’s sitting at the bottom of a lake.

Things went back and forth throughout the day, until the evening meal. Moser and I had just sat down to a nice, steaming yak steak when the train driver came in quite drunk.

See, it was the high day of Dashain, when many Nepalis sacrifice goats, praise Shiva, and imbibe booze—probably, in this situation, the apple brandy from Tukuche.

The enraged train drivers let the community know that Paul the Donkey Killer was planning on walking out of town without paying his share for the dead donkey, which caused some ruckus.

It became apparent to Paul that unless he agreed to at least pay for 50% of the dead donkey, things were going to be very bad for him. Outside the hotel was a mob of a dozen or so drunk Nepalis with bandannas over their faces, some packing khukuri knives.

If he tries to leave, it will be very bad, one quasi-sober Nepali commented to us.

The flood plains that stretch out between Jomsom and Kagbeni and beautiful and fertile.

The flood plains that stretch out between Jomsom and Kagbeni and beautiful and fertile.

We relayed the message to Paul who, stupefied, realized he was going to have to cough up the money. We weren’t in Canada and there was no Canadian Mounty to swoop down and save Paul just before a drunken Nepali chopped his head off. Nope. He’d just be dead.

Which didn’t happen, thankfully. Instead, we promised to walk Paul to Jomsom to talk to the CDO and police offices as he was aware of how close to a painful death he was.

Wednesday morning (day 11) after André’s cake was eaten, we walked to Jomsom and passed the site of the donkey slaying.

The donkey’s body was there, but badly mangled. We asked. Apparently, the Buddhists wouldn’t put the donkey down and left it in the elements. It survived for two nights until finally some wild jackals came and ate its eyes, hind legs, and part of its back. Then it died.

We breezed through Jomsom only stopping to check in at the ACAP office and make our weekly security phone call to Peace Corps HQ in Kathmandu.

Andrew and I managed to get some free baseball hats from Om, owner and manager of Om’s Home Hotel in Jomsom, which exists only because of its airport and the army base that guards the airport. Otherwise, it’s a just another dry, dusty Mustang city.

As we continued along the Kali Gandaki riverbed towards Kagbeni, where we were planning on meeting Beth, a N/194 PCV posted there. Just before we came to the bridge with Kagbeni in view, who else crossed our path other than Beth and Zach. Zach, Beth’s boyfriend and fellow N/194 PCV, was headed back to Kathmandu.

They were going to Jomsom to spend the night as all flights leave Jomsom early in the morning before the winds pick up. So we all walked back to Jomsom. We couldn’t stay at Om’s because it was full. We found a nice enough place, appropriately titled the Trekker’s Lodge. The highlight of that evening was another yak steak.

Abandoned lumber near Titi Lake

My favorite from the trek: Orphaned lumber atop an unpopulated hill somewhere near Titi Lake.

When Thursday came (day 12) we finally made it to Kagbeni after Zach flew off to Pokhara and then to Kathmandu. Beth’s little village is the farthest most point in Mustang that trekkers can go without buying a special pass for the Upper Mustang region.

That pass goes for US$ 700, and you also must have a local guide hired for the duration of your trip. Beth took us to the farthest point where we looked out along the arid plains of Mustang. It was beautiful.

The rest of the city is much like it was a thousand years ago. Really. It was clear to all of us Terai dwelling flatlanders that Beth’s Peace Corps experience was much, much different than ours.

While many of our cities are stumbling towards a mockery of modernization, Beth’s post is stuck in a time before the earth was round. When we made it back to Pokhara I saw the French film Caravan that portrayed a more extreme version of Kagbeni. It was filmed in Mustang.

The most exciting thing about Kagbeni was the availability of the BBC. Beth showed us the hotel she herself has something of a news habit.

As we watched the BBC rehashing the news of the bombings in Bali and the Philippines, an American woman came out of her room and tried to stare us down, Isn’t the reason we’re here is to be away from this? and gestured towards the TV, implying a deep contempt.

We live here, we yelled back in almost unison. Alas, we had been on vacation for twelve days and none of us held our tongues for this woman who eagerly spoke her ignorance.

We explained that we were Peace Corps volunteers and that, we were pretty sure, none of our mission statements said anything about not watching TV for news as a reason to join the Peace Corps or coming to Nepal.

In front of Om's Home in Jomsom, the last night during vacation we spent as a group.

In front of Om's Home in Jomsom, the last night during vacation we spent as a group.

Our vacation days were numbered and we knew it. The level of energy that we had at the beginning for renting bicycles, sinking boats, and killing chickens was lost. We laughed about a man in Nayalpul beating a duck and ate our daal bhaat.

On Friday (day 13) we had to head back to Jomsom to catch our flight on Saturday. We took the long way to Jomsom from Kagbeni so we could visit Panglang, where another N/194 PCV, Justin, is posted.

What I had seen at the Titi village I saw in Justin’s. Just off the main path, but seemingly as remote as if we were on the moon. The village was quiet since the people were in the fields harvesting grain.

Our last evening in Mustang was spent running errands around Jomsom. I bought some apple brandy from Marpha. Andrew, Colin, and Moser each bought 10 kgs of Mustang apples to take back to their friends at post.

We went to Om’s to have dinner and play ping pong and pool. Two older German development workers (salaried, in comparison to a volunteer) taught us a ping pong elimination game that involves about seven people and constantly running around the table.

We had to work hard and have as much fun as possible before the end of our trip, but we were beat. I could barely managing keeping the cue ball on the table as Moser and I played pool. When we paused for dinner we decided to have elections from our posse. We elected

  • Andrew: Best beard/Dirtiest camper
  • Colin: Drinkinist camper
  • Laurel: Least likely to survive/Camper who had the most fun
  • Liz: Most likely to survive
  • Scott: Cleanliest camper
  • Tony: Camper who had the least fun

Finally, our final day (day 14) came and that was that. We were handed over our boarding passes, loaded our baggage and ourselves in a plan headed for Pokhara. Once we got into Pokhara some of us were getting on buses and others staying in town for a night. The end is nigh!

We walked across the tarmac to the Beechcraft, propellers burning away at our vacation, which was, by any account, amazing.